A former horse farm in Old Westbury with previous owners the federal government described in court records as connected to the mob is being developed into a Catholic cemetery after more than two decades of legal disputes between the village and the land’s current owner, the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Litigation ended in 2016 with a $7.5 million settlement, and the diocese is preparing 87 acres of the 97-acre property, once known as Broad Hollow Farm, at Jericho Turnpike near Hitchcock and Powells lanes, to become its fourth cemetery, officials said. It will be named the Queen of Peace.
Six-foot-high berms are being constructed to shield the cemetery from its residential surroundings. Trees have been removed, cesspools are being installed and excavation of storm water drainage areas is underway.
Diocese spokesman Sean P. Dolan said in a statement that the Queen of Peace “will serve the Roman Catholic faithful for the current and future generations in accordance with our Catholic burial traditions.” As of 2017, there were about 1.6 million Catholics on Long Island, according to the Official Catholic Directory.
Residents near the site said they have been concerned about the cemetery’s impact on property values and traffic.
“Right now, you have tons of traffic that will line up on Jericho Turnpike,” said Westbury resident Andrea Simmonds, 59. “It’s already crowded, especially on the weekends. You have all these people coming and going, and I just feel that they didn’t care what we had to say.”
To address some of the concerns, the village board passed a resolution in November 2016 prohibiting funerals on Sundays and requiring processions to arrive at the cemetery only from Jericho Turnpike.
The Queen of Peace, like the diocese’s three other cemeteries on Long Island, ultimately may hold “one or two hundred thousand souls,” said Dolan, who called the site a “sacred place.” The diocese also operates Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, Holy Sepulchre in Coram and Queen of All Saints Cemetery in Central Islip.
Church officials first contacted the village about turning the old horse farm into a cemetery in 1993 and applied for a zoning change permit to construct it in an area zoned residential, according to court documents. The diocese alleged in court documents that the village board took no action on the proposal for two years, and then denied the application in 1995.
The decision launched a 20-year legal dispute over the plans for the land and whether it could be used for a cemetery.
The diocese sued the village in state Supreme Court in 1996 and then in U.S. District Court in 2009 to compel approval of the cemetery under religious land use protections. It alleged the village had repeatedly “concocted” reasons to delay.
Village officials responded in legal documents that cemeteries were not permitted at the location and that the board’s actions followed village code.
The land had been owned by horse trainers who federal law enforcement officials described as connected to the Colombo crime family, according to court documents. During a multiyear FBI investigation that began in 1990, the horse farm’s owners attempted to sell the property for $14 million to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer, court documents show. In 1992, the owners were indicted on federal charges of money laundering and conspiracy, and the federal government seized the farm, according to court documents.
Court documents show the diocese purchased the land for $5.63 million at a public auction in 1996, the same year it sued the village.
In 2000, State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Phelan ruled in the diocese’s favor, stating the cemetery could be developed as a religious use. The village appealed and in 2002, the state Supreme Court’s appellate division’s second department affirmed the religious-use decision. As a religious use, the diocese is exempt from paying taxes on the property.
The diocese alleged that despite the court approvals, the village stalled issuing required permits. In 2009, the diocese sued the village in U.S. District Court, claiming officials had “abused virtually every device and mechanism available” to prevent the cemetery’s development, court documents read.
The diocese also alleged that the village attempted to add to the diocese’s costs by requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the village’s consultants for “repeated and redundant” environmental testing. The diocese also said that the village attempted to impose a requirement that the diocese foot the bill for “psychiatric or psychological testing” analyzing the effects on a passer-by from a nearby road viewing a cemetery.
The litigation ended in 2016 with a settlement agreement paving the way for the cemetery. It also required the village’s insurance company to pay the diocese $7.5 million around April of last year, said Village Administrator Brian Ridgway.
Mayor Fred Carillo said he is relieved the legal disputes are over.
“We did have very good insurance, thank God,” Carillo said, pointing out the village did not incur the cost directly.
Queen of Peace Cemetery
In the late-19th to the mid-20th century, the land was owned by the Hitchcock family, which was prominent in polo and trained racehorses on what was then known as Broad Hollow Farm.
The diocese must apply for additional permits for future development on the remaining 10 acres of the 97-acre site and for seven proposed mausoleums. The cemetery will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but no funerals will be permitted on Sundays.